Sparks Notes: Less is Moore
The most important thing to note is this: the 1999 A Walk to Remember, author Nicholas Sparks's third novel, takes place in 1958 and 1959, while the 2002 A Walk to Remember, director Adam Shankman's second feature, and the leading lady debut of teen-pop icon Mandy Moore, takes place more or less in 2001. This matters because the scenario, though rather severely re-worked in the hands of screenwriter Karen Janszen, is so fixedly old-fashioned in every inch of its dainty social mores, fuzzy not-too-religious religiosity, creaky soap operatic complications, and swoony pre-sexual teenage lust that the Eisenhower years is the last time it could possibly have been set without appearing to be some kind of missive from an alien race; for context, Footloose was released 15 years prior to the book's publication, and covered similar territory (baddish boy cleans up his act to date the preacher's daughter in a tight-knit, largely conservative Southern town), and despite the best efforts of a busy New Wave soundtrack, that film is as glibly cheesy and musty as they come; not only was A Walk to Remember nearly a full generation later, it also happened to come out during one of the most ironic, self-aware periods in the history of pop culture. Putting over a PG-rated yarn of teenage love so delicate that even close-mouthed kisses play as rather naughty and taboo as though it was some a study of how actual teenagers in the actual 21st Century lived and behaved would have been impossible in the best of circumstances, and with Shankman running the show, these were already not the best of circumstances.
Let's not waste too much time on the plot: Landon Carter (Shane West) is one of the cool kids at his school in Beaufort, North Carolina, and on account of being cool he spends his time being a nasty little shit. One particular nasty little shit prank sends another student to the hospital and gives Landon the kind of choice that only movie characters ever have to make: go to drama class, or be expelled. In drama class, Landon spends a great deal of time with Jamie Sullivan (Moore), the daughter of the local reverend (Peter Coyote), a girl who is viewed by all in school as weird and churchy and altogether too square for words. Landon initially treats her in kind, but is touched by her inner sweetness, and then wowed by how pretty she can be when the make-up artists aren't bending all their will to making Moore look vaguely like what you think a "dowdy" and "plain" girl would look like if your standard for comparison is Los Angeles starlets. And so he falls in love with her, and she with him, but she has A Secret. If you really don't want to be spoiled, it might be best to stop reading, because I'm simply not motivated to try and talk around it, and also, it's a 10-year-old movie that kind of sucks, so spoilers shouldn't be a legitimate concern. Anyway, she's dying of movie leukemia, just like Ali McGraw had in Love Story, right down to the way that it makes the sufferer look even more delicate and feminine until she finally dies in what we don't see but can readily assume to be a shaft of golden light while a distant organ plays.
Nearly all of the changes made to the source material are designed to turn some kind of hip teen movie out of a story basted in nostalgia for the gentle ways of a bygone age (I think it's worth pointing out that Sparks himself wasn't yet born in the years he memorialises in A Walk to Remember), and to judge from the film's position as the lowest-grossing Sparks adaptation to date, it would appear to have been generally regarded as unsuccessful. Landon is now the son of a broken home, and not the richest kid in town with a Congressman dad who spend most of the year in Washington; he's made into a bad boy instead of just a lazy teen who takes drama because he wants an easy class in his senior year; and, most significantly by far, the Christianity is rolled back a hell of a lot, and that's from a book that was already sort of blandly milky about the role of God and Church in the everyday life of a small town, as only a devout Catholic trying to put himself in the mind of a Southern Baptist could write it. Oh, there's lots of chatter about praying and faith and Bibles in the movie, and a few clips of unexceptionally vapid Christian rock, but it has all the sincerity of a marketing ploy, that more-or-less twice-yearly attempt by the studios to market to flyover-country Christians in the same way that they occasionally remember that black people, Western fans, and middle-aged moms exist. Functionally, the movie was made primarily so that somebody, somewhere could respond to a blowhard culture critic by pointing out that, hey, we just released this PG romance about two teens who don't even want to have sex, and anyway they can't on account of she's dying of cancer. It is the most bitterly cynical kind of movie, the kind that adopts a breezy anti-cynicism as a pose, and then spends the rest of the time failing in the most spectacular way to competently execute it.
Possibly it's not cynicism, and the issue is merely that nobody involved is very good. Shankman, as a director, can lay claim to at most one good movie, 2007's Hairspray, and even that's grading on a curve. In 2002, his only previous feature was The Wedding Planner, a movie remembered by fondness with no-one that I have ever spoken to or heard of, and A Walk to Remember is almost top-to-bottom a movie made by a bit of a stylistic incompetent. "Almost", because Shankman does open the movie with a really nifty long take that lasts all of three minutes and darts back and forth between four cars and a dozen characters, and while it doesn't really serve much purpose besides remind us that the director started out as a choreographer, it's got a bit of sizzle to it. Beyond this, there's nothing wrong with most of the film; the biggest exception is a criminal over-reliance on dissolves that chiefly makes Mandy Moore's over-produced musical number look like even more faked than her wobbly lip-synching would on its, own and reduces the big climactic moment to a pile of giggles as a (SPOILER IF YOU CARE) teenage wedding ceremony is mushed into a series of fades that try and utterly fail to make the two kids' vows flow into one another.
What Shankman really, really can't do, is drag anything worthwhile out of his actors: West's performance moves with exaggerated wooden stiffness from one emotional pole to the next, and he appears constitutionally unable to do any acting with his face above the mouth, but at least he gets where the script requires him to be, which cannot be said of Moore - in subsequent years, I've formed an attachment to her comic acting, though it's usually in service to some dreadful scripts (far and away the best project she's ever headlined was the animated Tangled), but I wonder about taking it all back now, because holy shit. A 17-year-old at the time of playing the 18-year-old character, Moore's approach to playing a sincere, religious, sexually restrained young woman is to revert all the way back to her tween years, and play everything from an undernourished place of big-eyed enthusiasm and chirpy line deliveries that do no good to Janszen's already weak-willed dialogue. Her frumpy (but not, like, frumpy) outfits do more acting than she does.
The two lovers, who offer no chemistry nor any sense that their naked bodies wouldn't be as smooth as Barbie and Ken, are surrounded by a lot of vague faces that we don't care about, though Coyote is somewhat able to make the later scenes, when he's dealing with a child on death's door, a bit credible; Darryl Hannah, as Landon's mom, is saddled with a brown hairdo out of your darkest nightmares that makes her look like a mummified glam-rocker, and it's something of a major acting achievement that she's able to seem like a human being at all.
Above: Shane West and Gollum
But I have to say, it's better than previous Sparks adaptation Message in a Bottle. It is stupid, yes, and intoxicated on its own stupidity, but there's a certain zesty cheer with which Shankman acts as though he can somehow make this ancient storyline work in a contemporary setting, purely by refusing to acknowledge that there's anything fundamentally off-kilter about placing such dusty melodrama in the mouth of 2002 teenagers. He fails; oh, how he fails. Still, the failure is watchable, and that cannot be said of Message, so if the only thing the film does is prove that Sparks could be translated to cinema without burning everything worthwhile and human off the screen in the process, A Walk to Remember must be counted as the slimmest of successes. Okay, not "must", but I need to do something to make me feel like I justified the two hours of my life I spent watching West and Moore clatter about like marionettes.